Less government means ‘less us’

Because government means “us,” less government means “less us.” It almost always means more corporate interest, not public interest … and … more inequality, injustice, and disparity. Worst of all, it means fewer public services.

Imagine new occupants of a large historic building who decide to do a major remodeling project, and they do not take the time to learn how the building was built and what previous structural changes were done to the building. They tear into this column, that wall, or that beam, without thinking that these are indeed load-bearing walls and beams that keep the building standing.

The remodeling fever we are seeing in Washington and the Statehouse involve trashing all things public: public schools, public services, public health, and public employees — the load-bearing foundations of democracy and daily life.

The most meaningful insight I gained from serving on the City Council involved learning the functioning of government at the community scale: police protection, fire protection, water, sewer and inspection services, planning services, utilities, arts and cultural services, a fantastic library, community center, great schools and services for children with special needs. I get up every morning thinking about these public services and the people who make them happen, and I am grateful.

That is why I find it astonishing that so many people continue to fall for the falsehood that “government is bad.” Many of us immigrants have come from countries that have fallen apart in violence and disorder in the absence of a functioning government. Thousands of U.S. troops have died to establish a decent governing process in Iraq and Afghanistan, but here at home, we are told government is bad, private-everything is good, corporations are the greatest, and all things public are bad. Do our troops serving in Afghanistan know about the rush to diminish government at home?

Because government means “us,” less government means “less us.” It almost always means more corporate interest, not public interest, making decisions for us, and invariably leads to more inequality, injustice, and disparity. Worst of all, it means fewer public services. We have heard “government should be small,” but why have we not heard “corporations should be small and their influence on government limited?”

Less self-governance, providing fewer services, has produced results: contaminated eggs sickening thousands and contaminated meats killing children because we have not inspected and protected our food supply. Inspection services supposedly are “too much regulation.” Toxic releases, polluted air, contaminated drinking waters, the national financial crisis are all clear and predictable results of “less regulatory burden,” “less government” and more corporate irresponsibility.

Let us not forget that our properties, our lives, our neighborhoods, and our businesses are richer and better because there is police and fire protection, law, order, a system of fair courts, and regulations. We are better off because we are situated in and are beneficiaries of a publicly organized infrastructure that offers basic services to all, including protecting Iowa’s commonwealth which provide ecosystem services such as clean air and clean water. Public works.

While the process of governing ourselves is not perfect and can be improved, “less government” is no improvement. We are the lucky beneficiaries of many generations before us who gave so much to build this nation, but, as many of us immigrants know, democracy and self governance are highly perishable. They are not something we have, but something we have to make every day and nurture through our involvement. Like a garden, you have to tend it.

kamyar-enshayan5464300Kamyar Enshayan served on the Cedar Falls City Council from 2003 to 2011. Enshayan is director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Education at the University of Northern Iowa, where he teaches environmental studies. He has been a member of the Iowa Policy Project board of directors since July 2016.

Kansans deliver tax-cut cautions for Iowans

“You have the opportunity to not be like Kansas.”

As part of Moral Mondays at the Iowa State Capitol, Iowa advocates and lawmakers this week heard a cautionary tale from Annie McKay of Kansas Action for Children and Duane Goossen of the Kansas Center for Economic Growth.

Annie McKay, president and CEO of Kansas Action for Children, speaks at the Moral Mondays Iowa event this week at the Iowa State Capitol.
Annie McKay, president and CEO of Kansas Action for Children, speaks at the Moral Mondays Iowa event this week at the Iowa State Capitol.

At a time when Iowa lawmakers are considering significant tax cuts, McKay and Goossen, who analyze and promote child policies and conduct analysis of the Kansas state budget, traveled to Des Moines to outline the effects of what has become known as the “Kansas experiment,” a set of draconian tax cuts passed in 2012.

At that time, Goossen recounted, Gov. Sam Brownback promised the cuts would bring an economic boom to the state, with rising employment and personal income. People would move to Kansas. It would be, the governor said, “like a shot of adrenaline into the heart of Kansas economy.”

But, five years on, the promised economic boom has not arrived.

“Business tax cuts were supposed to be magic, they were supposed to spur job growth — and they didn’t,” said Goossen, a former Republican state legislator and state budget director under three governors.

In fact, since 2012 job growth in Kansas has lagged behind its Midwestern neighbors, including Iowa. The state has, however, seen years of revenue shortfalls and damaging budget cuts, eroding critical public services like K-12 and higher education, human services, public safety and highway construction.

In this period, the state has depleted its budget reserves, robbed its highway fund to shore up its general fund, borrowed money and deferred payments in order to balance the budget. Kansas has experienced three credit downgrades. Lawmakers have raised the sales tax twice and repealed tax credits that helped low-income families make ends meet.  (In fact, the bottom 40 percent of Kansans actually pays more in taxes today than before the 2012 tax cuts went into effect.)

These actions have real impacts. Last year, Kansas saw the third biggest drop in child well-being among states as documented by Kids Count. Its 3rd grade reading proficiency ranking fell from 13th to 30th.

“What we did in Kansas – there is no proof behind it,” McKay said.

Iowans today are better positioned to stand up to damaging tax cuts than their Kansas counterparts were five years ago, McKay said. “We did not that have same people power in 2012.” She advised Iowa advocates to make crystal clear how all the issues currently generating widespread interest — education, health and water quality among them — are linked to the state’s ability to raise adequate revenue.

“You are ahead of where we were,” she said. “You have the opportunity to not be like Kansas.”

 

annedischer5464Posted by Anne Discher, interim executive director of the Child & Family Policy Center (CFPC).
adischer@cfpciowa.org

McKay and Goossen’s talk Feb. 13 at the Iowa State Capitol was coordinated by the Iowa Fiscal Partnership (a joint effort of CFPC and the Iowa Policy Project) and supported by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. CFPC, through its Every Child Counts initiative, is one of more than two dozen sponsors of Moral Mondays, a weekly gathering during session to highlight issues that advance Iowa values like equality, fairness and justice.

Spin and ideology are no substitute for good policy

The tax-cutters have a big microphone now but amplified volume does not substitute for good content.

Basic RGBBrace yourselves for public policy backed by nothing but spin and ideology in Iowa. A good example: tax policy.

Senator Bill Dix, who will be the new majority leader in the Iowa Senate with a comfortable nine or potentially 10-vote edge, offers a strident approach for the coming legislative session in this story by veteran Statehouse reporter Rod Boshart:

“The states that are growing the fastest today are the ones that have recognized that economic policy and tax policy makes a big difference,” he said. “High income tax punishes people who want to work, save and make investments in our state. We need to recognize that. States that have grown the fastest the last couple of decades across our country today are the ones that have either lowered their rates, broadened their base and kept things simple or moved to no income tax at all.”

The tax cutters have a big microphone now but amplified volume does not substitute for good content. Research is clear. So are the facts, and Senator Dix is missing them.

On IPP’s GradingStates.org website, Peter Fisher sorts out the fact from fiction with so-called “business climate” rankings that are certifiably unreliable. But they get a lot of attention from legislators who want something to back their ideological approach to policy.

Senator Dix is one of three Iowa state chairs for the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, which peddles much of the nonsense about tax cuts promoting economic growth.

Notes Fisher about the ALEC analysis, “when we can compare states ranked the best by ALEC with states ranked the worst, it turns out that ALEC’s 20 ‘best’ states have lower per capita income, lower median family income, and a lower median annual wage than the 20 ‘worst’ states. ALEC’s ‘best’ states also have higher poverty rates: 15.4 percent on average from 2007 through 2014, vs. 13.8 percent in the ‘worst’ states. The states favored by ALEC include the likes of Utah, North Dakota, and North Carolina, whereas ALEC’s ‘worst’ states include New York, California, and Vermont.”

Even if the prescriptions for lower taxes, etc. were right, they would not apply in Iowa. Our state has repeatedly been shown to be average or below average by any measure on taxes paid. In fact, few states can get below Iowa on corporate taxes, something the business lobby will not admit. So we start the legislative session with competitiveness not an issue for Iowa except in the minds of well-placed lobbyists and certain legislators.

And another angle not on their agenda: accountability on the large number of tax breaks already in Iowa law — something the Cedar Rapids Gazette noted today in an excellent editorial:

Over the years, lawmakers from both parties have given away tax exemptions, deductions and credits to an array of special interests lobbying for a break. Individually, the cuts look small. Added together, they have a significant budgetary impact.

They’re sold as an economic boost, but there’s rarely any follow up to find out if the tax cuts actually delivered on those promises.

And the real path to growth — the path lined with investments in human capital and public infrastructure? We’ll see how many of those demonstrated, positive approaches to prosperity even get a hearing in 2017.

owen-2013-57Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director, Iowa Policy Project

Contact: mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

An opportunity for a productive, fair agenda

A good place for the new governor to start is establishing transparency and accountability with reforms of tax credits and other tax expenditures.

Congratulations to Governor Terry Branstad on his nomination as ambassador to China and to Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds for her coming role as Governor of our state.

This is a tremendous opportunity for the new Governor to start marking her clean slate with a productive and fair agenda that advances opportunity for children and families, protects the vulnerable and enhances our quality-of-life assets of clean air, clean water, and cultural enrichment.

A good place to start is establishing a new regime of transparency and accountability in state spending with a reform agenda for tax credits and other tax expenditures — something she may embrace as a former county treasurer. Important decisions are being made in the shadows in the Iowa State Capitol. Our incoming Governor has an opportunity to bring them out into the open.

With this type of reform, we may find there are in fact adequate revenues to again cultivate Iowans’ long-held commitments to education, to our safety net, to our environment, and to fairness and safety in the workplace.

At the Iowa Policy Project, we welcome inquiries from the new Governor and her staff about our research. May they — like Iowans around the state — find it to be a credible and reliable resource to better understand our public policy choices.

owen-2013-57Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director of the Iowa Policy Project

Contact: mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

Iowa can win the race to the bottom

However fascinating this experiment may be, make no mistake: People will be hurt.

Basic RGBIn the race to the bottom, all signs indicate that Iowa can beat the competition.

Yes, Iowa has a chance to shed hard-fought achievements toward respect for working families and compassion for the vulnerable. The coming two years will be fascinating if for no reason other than to see how much further we can fall behind, on wages and income, workplace protection, work supports such as child care and health care, and protection and enhancement of our land, air and water.

But however fascinating a low-road experiment may be, make no mistake: People will be hurt. These are Iowans. They are young people who could be our future if we were to invest properly in them. They are middle-aged parents struggling to support families. They are seniors who watch with trepidation as national political games are played with Social Security and Medicare, and as state politicians claim their earned, negotiated pensions are excessive.

The coming threat is to our civic fabric of public education. It is a threat to a safety net that protects individuals and can advance them toward their dreams.

An exaggeration, you say? Have you examined the policy goals of ALEC, the shadowy American Legislative Exchange Council, in which Iowa’s new legislative leadership are entrenched leaders? We at IPP have looked at ALEC. Its agenda is a recipe for fiscal instability and economic stagnation.

ALEC promotes tax cuts and tax structures that benefit the wealthy and corporations, even more than they do now. ALEC would erase already inadequate regulations of private industry that protect workers, communities, and public health.

Iowans, are you hoping for sustainable funding for public schools? A meaningful minimum wage increase? Regulation of polluters, or of unscrupulous employers who steal wages? Are you kidding?

These need to be our priorities. They are not the coming agenda.

The lobby of the Iowa State Capitol is littered with promises that remain unfulfilled. Special-interest forces have successfully put tax breaks and corporate welfare ahead of traditional, responsible approaches to a public infrastructure that serves all Iowans, not just the well-heeled and well-positioned few.

These forces have emerged from an era of divided government, and now they threaten to run the table. The 2017 race to the bottom already has begun. Do we really want to win it?

owen-2013-57Posted by Mike Owen, Executive Director of the Iowa Policy Project

Contact: mikeowen@iowapolicyproject.org

Tying science to policy — for Iowa

Iowans can do better for the environment and should.

160915-59170_dox35x45The Iowa Policy Project has always enlisted the help of students and professors or former professors from Iowa colleges to help produce good research.

IPP founder and researcher David Osterberg, left, in his job as a professor of Public Health at the UI, has been part of the annual statement on climate change signed by researchers and teachers at all the colleges and universities in Iowa.

This year’s statement, released today with 187 signers from 39 Iowa colleges and universities, is about farming to sequester carbon and improve water quality: The Multiple Benefits of Climate-Smart Agriculture.

An excerpt:

Farmers and land managers who have implemented proven conservation practices have positioned Iowa to lead implementation of Climate‐Smart Agriculture. Iowa’s leadership through wider adoption of conservation practices will benefit our state, while these practices lessen human contribution to net greenhouse gas emissions. …

We, as Iowa educators, believe Iowa should play a leadership role in this vital effort, just as our state has already done for wind energy.

Find the full statement here.

Find the news release here.

The statement envisions “a multi‐faceted vision for land stewardship by vigorously implementing federal, state, and other conservation programs” to generate a more diverse landscape. It concludes:

Such a landscape would benefit all Iowans by transforming Iowa’s vast croplands into resources that simultaneously generate food, feed, fuel, a healthier climate, better soils, wildlife habitat, and cleaner waters.

The lead authors are Chris Anderson, who has served as assistant director of Iowa State University’s climate science program, and Jerry Schnoor, co-director of the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, with editorial assistance from senior science writer Connie Mutel of the UI.

Also contributing were: Gene Takle, Diane Debinski and David Swenson, ISU; David Courard-Hauri, Drake; Neil Bernstein, Mount Mercy; Peter Thorne, Greg Carmichael, Elizabeth Stone and David Osterberg, UI; and Kamyar Enshayan, University of Northern Iowa.

The issues raised in this statement fit well with our work at the Iowa Policy Project. We produce papers on water quality and confined animal agriculture, and connect these issues to public policy impacts. What we do at this small policy institute fits into larger questions addressed by academics and policy people in the state.

Iowans can do better for the environment and should.

Solar power shines when most needed

Distributed solar is good for the environment because the electricity produced is clean. It also is likely to come just when it is needed. Let’s make sure we have the policies in place to encourage more solar.

By David Osterberg and Nathaniel Baer

The hot sun we experienced this August not only caused the local electric grid to experience high use, but it also powered solar systems distributed around Eastern Iowa.

The middle of a hot summer day is a time when almost any U.S. electric utility expects to see highest demands during the year. Aug. 11 was going to be one of those days in Eastern Iowa. Peak demands of high electricity use translate to high costs.

So, a day in advance, MidAmerican Energy asked the University of Iowa’s Facilities Management team to cut back the university’s electric load from 12:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Aug. 11, 2016.

The university has an arrangement with the electric utility to decrease its electric load by cutting back on air conditioning and other usage, when called upon, in exchange for a reduced electric rate. The goal is to reduce costs for all utility customers by encouraging some customers to reduce their electricity use at the highest and most expensive times.

This type of arrangement is a win-win not only for UI and MidAmerican, but also other MidAmerican customers. Utilities often make these arrangements available to large customers as well as residential customers with air conditioning.

The university has two small solar energy systems that produce electricity. The data for one of them, a 38-kilowatt solar array, showed energy production varying during the morning of Aug. 11 (below). During the utility’s predicted peak period of energy use, the solar array’s production rose quickly and continued to be strong for the remaining period.

Basic RGB

Similarly, the solar arrays at Johnson County’s Secondary Roads and SEATS campus began producing much higher levels of solar energy shortly after the 12:30 p.m. high-use period started. These panels also continued with strong production through 5 p.m., when the period ended. (below)

160822-solar-timeofday

The hot sun caused the MidAmerican system to experience a peak day but also powered distributed solar systems in the area to help meet those higher energy needs.

Distributed solar is good for the environment because the electricity produced is clean. It also is likely to come just when it is needed. Let’s make sure we have the policies in place to encourage more solar.

2016-osterberg_5464David Osterberg is an energy and environment researcher at the Iowa Policy Project. dosterberg@iowapolicyproject.org

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANathaniel Baer is the energy program director at the Iowa Environmental Council. baer@iaenvironment.org.

 

A version of this column ran in the Sept. 6 Cedar Rapids Gazette.